This was, hands down, the least happiest New Year holiday in recent memory. In addition to being sick and feeling as if a lung was going to be coughed up, a water pipe under my house broke. Despite being an adult with an adult boyfriend, my first instinct upon discovering the busted pipe was to call my Mama. I have no real need to believe in god because she has been my savior for my entire life. There has never been a problem of mine that she could not attempt to solve. Her youth provided her with ample opportunities to learn “street” smarts. As a result, she is strong-willed, stubborn, hard-working, funny, charitable, loving and fiercely loyal. I remember numerous times that she went to bat for me when I was dead wrong. The tradition continues with her grandchildren. If you mess with one of us, you will have to face the wrath of Phyllis.
As a young girl in the 1940’s, growing up in Step Rock, Arkansas, my mother’s opportunities were limited to dead-end jobs that were partnered with early marriage and motherhood. This was a fate that had been passed down through many women in her past. She was reared in an environment where her step-father abused each member of the family. He was a man who not only had difficulty staying employed but also in remaining sober. His inability to pull his family out of poverty fueled his alcoholism which in turn fueled his rage. My mother escaped as often as she could by means of her school books but this was a short-lived retreat. There was nobody in her extended family that lived any different: going to work as soon as you were able was a means of survival.
Her childhood afforded no luxuries; they did not have indoor plumbing, four children shared one bed and at times, they ate whatever game her step-father could kill. Her most desperate tale was the year that her step-father had a friend who worked at the canning factory. The family had no food to eat so his friend would give him the tossed out cans of peaches. For two months, all they ate were those peaches. On her morning walk to school, she would pass a building that displayed a painting of a loaf of bread. During the night, her dreams would be filled with the pleasure of eating a slice of that delicious, warm bread. This story continually gives me a heavy heart because I can not fathom that type of hunger. To this day, I have not seen her eat a peach.
Sadly, her classroom education ended in the ninth grade and she was forced to go to work in a chicken house. Whenever I have complained about a job, she has reminded me of her tenure pulling the butts out of chickens. That has repeatedly been enough to shut me up. Then, following family tradition, she married before she was sixteen years old to a man who was terribly abusive. As with her step-father, her husband was uneducated and had a difficult time finding work. The same violence she had endured as a child followed her into her adult life. Despite her attempts to leave him, her parents encouraged her to stay in her marriage. After all, this was common practice in their family. However, when he choked her almost to death, her parents relented and allowed her to return home. She seemed destined to continue the cycle of poverty and violence that had perpetuated her genealogy.
But, she didn’t.
She broke the cycle by putting herself through college while raising two daughters and at 44 years old, graduated with a Bachelors of Science in Nursing. Often, I joke that she comes from the “old school” work ethic but this is a woman who does everything herself. By everything, I mean: helping to build her new home at the tender age of 64 or building a privacy fence in my backyard or installing new hardwood flooring in her home just a few months ago. This list could go on and on, but I think you see my point. In true Southern fashion, my Mama is often found in her front yard, floppy pink hat on her head, muttering a variety of colloquialisms sprinkled with curse words while she plans her next home renovation and tends to her flowers.
Two years ago at Christmas, she “adopted” a family with two boys from my child’s elementary school. She made sure this entire family had everything they needed including food to cook for more than just Christmas dinner. Much to the concern of my youngest son, she gave them several of his unused toys. (We reassured him that yes, he would still get new gifts and no, he didn’t need THAT many toys anyway) I have witnessed my Mama give of herself, her money and her time in numerous selfless ways but this was such a moving event for me. She explained the year that she was in elementary school, my Granny had 4 small kids and no money at all. The little town they lived in provided everything they needed: food, clothes, toys. My mother has never forgotten that act of kindness, she cries still when retelling the story and continually tries to pay it forward.
My life has been showered with stories like these and countless more. She has never been an overly affectionate parent but has imparted her feelings to me nonetheless. On my last birthday, she wrote the most beautiful letter about our relationship and it was stunning to read her words. It has not been perfect, but it has forever been centered around love. This one thing I know for sure: she loves me more than anything else and nothing will change that fact. I can proudly say that she is a wild spirit with a tremendously kind heart and I hope to be just like her when I grow up. We do not constantly see eye to eye but I know, in a pinch, she always has my back.